Trump’s Offshore Tax-Cut Pitch Falls Flat in Silicon Valley
Rate overhaul seen as likely no matter who wins presidency
Apple’s Cook to co-host fundraiser for Clinton and Democrats
Republican Donald Trump is proposing a big tax cut for companies like Apple Inc., which would see its tax rate slashed on about $200 billion of profit it keeps offshore.
Yet Apple’s boss is co-hosting a fundraiser on Wednesday for Trump’s Democratic opponent for the White House.
Apple itself has no political action committee; Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook is acting in his personal capacity to help raise money for the Hillary Victory Fund, which contributes to the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and other Democratic party committees.
Still, Cook’s support for Clinton, who hasn’t tried to match Trump’s tax cuts for corporations, reflects how the Republican nominee’s proposals haven’t won him much support among U.S. technology leaders -- many of whom have expressed concern about his campaign-trail bombast. Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
“This is woefully inadequate in terms of an olive branch to Silicon Valley from Donald Trump,” said Tucker Bounds, a startup founder and former deputy communications director for Republican Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Bounds was referring to Trump’s proposal to tax companies’ accumulated offshore profit at 10 percent -- down from the current top corporate income tax rate of 35 percent.
Apple isn’t the only company that would benefit. U.S. companies overall have more than $2.4 trillion in earnings that they have “indefinitely reinvested” overseas, based on analyses of their public disclosures. That’s because federal law allows corporations to defer paying taxes on their foreign profit until they return it to the U.S., a process called “repatriation.”
Trump’s tax plans call for ending deferral and cutting the top corporate tax rate to 15 percent. For the trillions in offshore profit that U.S. companies have already accumulated, he suggests the one-time tax rate of 10 percent -- a bargain that he says would lure that cash back to the U.S quickly and deliver economic growth as well as tax revenue for infrastructure spending.
“This is a major way to raise revenue,” said Stephen Moore, a senior economic adviser to Trump’s campaign. He also said: “We’re not in this to carry water for the tech companies.” Under Trump’s proposal, U.S. companies would repatriate more than $1.5 trillion over a 10-year window, Moore said, paying at least $150 billion in taxes.
Clinton hasn’t proposed anything similar; she’s said little about corporate tax reform or the current 35 percent corporate rate, which is one of the highest statutory rates in the world.
Much of the offshore earnings in question are held by technology and pharmaceutical companies -- a reflection of their global reach and tax-planning strategies. In a July 29 research note, Tobias Levkovich, the chief U.S. equity strategist at Citigroup, estimated that Apple had $214.9 billion in offshore cash; Microsoft Corp. had $108.9 billion; Cisco Systems Inc. had $57.2 billion; and Alphabet Inc. had $45.4 billion. All of those companies declined to comment.
Naturally, technology industry executives care about political issues beyond tax policy, and Trump’s positions on international trade and immigration don’t necessarily align with their business interests. Last month, more than 100 industry executives put their names on an “open letter” that said Trump “campaigns on anger, bigotry, fear of new ideas and new people, and a fundamental belief that America is weak and in decline.” He would be “a disaster for innovation,” the letter said.
International tax policy ranks high among the industry’s business issues, said Joe Kennedy, a senior fellow who focuses on trade, regulation and tax at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a policy group with board members including representatives from Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon.com Inc. and International Business Machines Corp.
“For major U.S. tech companies, tax reform is a big one because they are getting pressured by Europe and others to pay more taxes to those jurisdictions,” Kennedy said. “They feel like they’re besieged.”
Cook told CBS News in December that he would “love to” repatriate Apple’s offshore earnings. “Why don’t you?” interviewer Charlie Rose asked. “Because it would cost me 40 percent to bring it home,” Cook said -- evidently adding state taxes to the federal tax rate. “And I don’t think that’s a reasonable thing to do.”
European Union regulators are examining the tax structures that U.S. companies including Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Starbucks Corp. have set up in their member states. That potential crackdown may spur U.S. officials to act on overhauling corporate tax laws, said Rohit Kumar, co-leader of Tax Policy Services for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.
“There is increasingly awareness that if you don’t tax it, other states will,” he said.
That growing realization may help explain why Clinton’s lack of a proposal for repatriation tax break hasn’t hurt her among technology companies: Some observers think the U.S. government will adopt one regardless of who wins the presidency.
“There’s a fair amount of general agreement that repatriation would be a feature of broader tax reform under a new president, which I would say is inevitable,” said Jon Traub, the managing principal of tax policy at Deloitte Tax LLP, the tax arm of accounting firm Deloitte LLP.
Others see clues on Clinton’s campaign website. She has proposed $275 billion in infrastructure spending, and her website says her administration will “fully pay for these improvements through business tax reform” -- though it doesn’t include any specifics.
That’s “code for repatriation,” said Henrietta Treyz, an analyst who follows the issue for Height Securities LLC, a financial research firm. “Repatriation is the linchpin in both Trump and Clinton’s infrastructure packages.”
Asked about Clinton’s position on repatriation, Tyrone Gayle, a Clinton campaign spokesman, said: “Hillary Clinton has been clear throughout the campaign that she supports business tax reform consistent with the principle of rewarding investment here in the U.S., and closing loopholes that distort our tax code and result in shifting profits and jobs overseas.”
Trump told Fox Business Network on Aug. 2 that he would “at least double” Clinton’s proposed infrastructure spending. Moore estimated that Trump’s repatriation tax proposal would raise “around $200 billion” in taxes.
A few alternative plans have already surfaced in Washington. In his last two budget proposals, President Barack Obama called for 14 percent tax rate on companies’ offshore earnings. This summer, House Republicans released a blueprint for a major corporate-tax overhaul that would create a repatriation tax rate of just 8.75 percent. The GOP plan would also move the U.S. toward a “territorial” approach to taxation -- meaning companies would owe taxes only on their domestic income. (The U.S. is the only developed economy that uses a so-called worldwide tax system.)
The House tax plan was released just four days before Cook hosted another political fundraiser. That one was for House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who has made overhauling federal-tax policy a top policy priority.
Whatever plan advances, it seems clear that policy makers want to steer away from an approach that Congress took in 2004, when it granted a “repatriation holiday.” Companies including Pfizer Inc. and Hewlett-Packard were allowed to pay a one-time tax rate of 5.25 percent to return their offshore earnings to the U.S., and they voluntarily brought back a collective $312 billion.
Think tanks and the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service later found that most companies used the bonanza to buy back their own shares or pay dividends instead of investing infrastructure or hiring new employees.
“A rifle-shot, one-time tax holiday is kind of not going to happen,” said Matt Tanielian, a co-founder of Franklin Square Group, a lobbying firm in Washington that has technology companies among its clients. “The new model is that it will be part of some sort of tax-reform package along the lines of what Ryan is talking about.”
Trump’s advisers are still hammering out details of his tax plan -- but it doesn’t include any limitations on how U.S. companies could spend their repatriated earnings.
“Ideally, we’d like it used for building more plants and stuff, but if they use it for shareholders and buybacks, that’s fine,” said Moore, the campaign adviser. “That just benefits American shareholders and goes into Americans’ 401(k)s.”